The Other Side of Sustainability

By Shannon Warren

This morning Auroville was abuzz with the whirring of chainsaws slicing into fallen trees, the frantic beeping of the suddenly plentiful rickshaws, and the general chaos of people trying to make sense of the destruction around them.  It has been three days since cyclone Thane hit Auroville and the devastation is still astounding.  The heat and humidity bring into sharp relief the lack of drinking water and electricity as people venture out in the glaring sun to procure necessities and try to clear debris from the roads.  Some of our group has experienced natural disasters and many of us haven’t (I am included in the latter group).  Certainly none of us expected anything like this when we came to India for a practicum in communications and sustainable development.  I suppose the thing about learning, about self-improvement, is that you must be confronted with the unexpected and unknown to progress.

The night of the storm, while I curled up afraid but safe in my sheets and behind sturdy brick walls, I listened to the howling winds, shattering glass, and falling trees as peoples’ homes and livelihoods were destroyed in a matter of hours.  The next morning I woke up in disbelief.  Just one day earlier we were carefree, hiking up to a temple on top of a hill and swimming in a beautiful freshwater lake.  That morning we were not only in an unfamiliar landscape and culture, but had just been through the worst cyclone that had ever hit Auroville, according to local sources.

Although the situation could have escalated to the point of hysteria very quickly, we chose instead to play cards by flashlight and sit together singing familiar songs, letting our apprehension out through laughter rather than tears.  Some of us ventured out on the roads, clad in our raincoats and ponchos, to see how the villages had been affected and to search for food and water.  After climbing through the fallen giants blocking the roads and seeing that being in a mud hut during a cyclone as opposed to a sturdy brick building made a world of difference, we knew that we had our work cut out for us the next couple days.

The next day, New Year’s Eve, we donned our work clothes, picked up machetes, and started chopping and clearing up the trees and debris around our pavilions.  Suddenly it seemed as if we were no longer a group of semi-strangers brought together by wanderlust and a course requirement, we were all kindred spirits, working together to realize a common goal.

While traipsing through the grass behind my classmates with my arms full of branches and my heart full of determination, it became clear to me that there are two sides to sustainability: the physical side that involves composting toilets and cold showers as well as the emotional support that comes from being a member of a community which takes care of all of its members as well as the physical space that it inhabits.

So, while it may not have been the lesson we set out to learn, we have all discovered the emotional side of sustainability over the past few days.  Although the people who live here may not have many of the comforts we enjoy back home, they do have one thing that many of us don’t: the sense of security and assurance that comes from living in a community where people are connected and take care of one another.   I think I’d take that over an iPad any day of the week.

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